Set fire to Empire

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Let’s get to the point

To follow Jesus is to build a new world from the ashes of the old. Sometimes, for the sake of justice, we’re called to start the fires that create those ashes.

Last February, Catholic Workers Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya set fire to heavy machinery being used to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were willing to be misunderstood, arrested and imprisoned. They were willing to fight for the earth and for God’s children. These are Christ’s friends and accomplices.

Just as Jesus was criticized for making a mess of the Temple, Reznicek and Montoya have also been condemned. They’re not the first. Christians condemned the Camden 28, a group of Catholic anti-Vietnam War activists who raided a draft board. They condemned participants in the Plowshares movement, the Christian anti-nuclear activists who advocate for direct action that damages weapons and military property.

Jesus’ disciples remember: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Christians would do well to remember that zeal for what God has made – the temples of our bodies, the tabernacle of Creation – is supposed to be a mark of our love by which they will know we are Christians.

This zeal is what makes a revolution. This zeal is love. It drives people to stand up and fight back for the sake of the unheard and oppressed. These are who Christ came for, and this is their good news. People with disabilities, prisoners, the poor – intimately acquainted with systemic violence – they’re at the center of God’s good news, heirs of God’s kingdom.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If this is our call, then there’s a lot of work to do. People are suffering today. People need liberation today. People are waiting for the Kingdom, and they’re dying. Today. Empire derives its power from the suffering of the oppressed. And it will continue unless we stop it – until we smash it.

The rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces for evil in the heavenly realms – this is empire.

Empire is capitalism. Empire is white supremacy. Empire is sexism, homophobia, transphobia. Empire is the cultural systems that crush God’s children, God’s image-bearers. Empire seeks to destroy the very Kin-dom of God.

Empire’s foot soldiers are all who support the status quo, all who can afford to survive the suffering imposed on their neighbors. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. Some do not care because they do not know. Some are unable to care. They benefit by not caring. After all, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for such people to enter the kingdom of God.

We cannot wait for change. Such people cannot change because they are convinced that their freedom requires that others continue to be oppressed.

Jesus fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He rebuked religious leaders and the rich, overturned tables and cleared the temple courts with a whip. He didn’t waste time reasoning. He acted for the people and against the systems that enslaved them.

Where Jesus goes, we must follow. Even with a whip. Also with loaves and fishes. Always in solidarity.

But Jesus is the Prince of Peace, some might say. This is violence.

I disagree.

Violence drives a Dodge Challenger into the crowd. Violence shoots from the thirty-second floor of the Mandala Bay. Violence breaks into a Bible study or a dance club or an elementary school. Violence questions your right to vote. Violence refuses medical treatment, asks you what you were wearing and how much you had to drink and why you were there in the first place. Violence drags you from a desk or tackles you at a community pool. Violence offers you a golf trophy and scoffs at your ingratitude when you ask for clean water.

Violence offers to pray and says it wishes it could do more. Things are going to be different, it promises. You’ll see. Turn the other cheek, it says, just before it turns away.

God’s liberating love demands radical empathy – living in communion with God and with God’s children. This love – Jesus’ love – teaches us how to love, how to be human, even unto death.

God’s Kingdom is a new heaven and a new earth, a place that provides shelter, feeds the hungry, heals the sick. God’s Kingdom springs forth from the scorched earth of Empire – a place that kills the weak, steals from the poor, and destroys all that is beautiful.

It’s time to burn it down.

Sabotage the pipelines that bleed oil into rivers. Tear down the monuments memorializing slave owners and racists. Set free the prisoners. Disarm the police. “Peace, peace,” they say.

So we shall make peace. We will be insulted. We will be persecuted. People will falsely say all kinds of evil against us. But we will make peace.

As white nationalists are emboldened.

As we witness state-sponsored repression.

As people are beaten and bloodied in the streets.

We must ask ourselves: are we willing to act? Will we sabotage the means of oppression? Will we use force to fight for the freedom of fascism’s victims? Will we surrender our sense of propriety, our personal piety, our ethical purity for the sake of God’s children?

Or will we sit in the marketplaces with blood on our hands:

We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.

Empire cannot be reformed or transformed. Instead, it will be shown for what it is. It will be revealed with fire.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Sometimes love breaks rules

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My mom didn’t talk to me for forty days after I came out to her as gay. I’d revealed that the friend I kept bringing when I visited family was actually my boyfriend of two years. She was shocked.

Because my mom believes in a sanctified numerology, forty days was the time she needed to sort through her hurt and disappointment with God. At the end of the forty days, she concluded that I had a clean conscience, and she couldn’t argue with that. But in spite of her tolerance of me, her theology remained unchanged.

She’d once told me that gay people were “spiritually lower than animals,” so perhaps this was a progressive position for her.

What followed, though, was silence.

We talked some on the phone but never about anything important. She’d update me on family gossip and I’d tell her I was busy but doing well. I kept things brief and vague. I couldn’t talk about my favorite person with her. I’d tell her about trips, outings, concerts, all sorts of events and occasions, but I’d always leave out that I went with my boyfriend.

Before she knew he was my boyfriend, she used to ask about him all the time, how he was doing, what he was up to. She would often remind me to be more like him – a good boy. This was also her way of saying that I should go back to school. That was before she knew we were together. She didn’t bring him up after she found out. I lived across the country, so this arrangement of silence felt doable. It didn’t feel good, but it was something I could live with.

A year later I moved back east, staying with my sister and her husband. Then, six months later, my parents decided to move in as well, to help with my newborn nephew.

Things were strained and surface-level. I was hiding my life, barely explaining why I was flying to Texas every other month or why I wasn’t doing Thanksgiving with the family. My family is good at denial. Things too confusing, too difficult, too awkward, just get put away where we don’t have to look at them. This was just like all the other things we never deal with.

But then my boyfriend broke up with me. And all I could do was cry. The tears would well up without warning. I’d run to my bedroom or the backyard or go on a walk. I felt like a teenager again, hiding things from my parents. Smoking out of my windowsill became sobbing into my pillow. I’d practice looking happy in front of the mirror after hours of crying like I used to practice looking sober during parties.

But even without seeing the tears, my mom knew something was wrong. She could see the way I dragged my body. Concerned, she approached my sister. And my sister told her everything. She told her about the boy, about the breakup, about how my mom had proven she wasn’t a person I could share my life with.

My mom climbed the stairs to my room. She knocked on my door. I answered, and there she was, her eyes filled with tears. She wrapped her arms around me, held me tight, said again and again and again how sorry she was for the pain she put me through, for the pain I was living in. She promised I’d find somebody better for me, that I would be happy again, that I deserve that much.

That night my mom slept in my bed, holding me, wiping down my wet face. Only a few weeks before the break-up, she’d switched my glass of wine with Martinelli’s at dinner, thinking she was sneaky and that somehow I wouldn’t notice, but this night she kept asking if I needed a beer, if I needed to smoke. She was willing to break her rules for me. She was willing to go against her church. For me.

Sometimes love does that, at least the good kind of love. It breaks the rules – especially the religious ones – in order to embrace people in pain and to reassure them. You don’t have to be alone. Because I’m here with you. And I love you.

Seeking a People

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I used to call myself a Quaker. I never joined a meeting, and honestly, I had suspicions from the beginning that it just wasn’t going to work. But I was desperate for people, and I really wanted the Quakerism I’d read about.

I couldn’t find it, though, and now I’m not sure it exists.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking, and writing, and a number of Friends say my critical observations about Quaker institutions and culture are illegitimate, either because of my lack of membership or because of my newness. I don’t have a right to point out classism and white supremacy, they say.

It’s been hard finding my place and voice in the Religious Society of Friends. And honestly, I’ve given up. I don’t see the point.

When I read what early Friends wrote, I’m drawn to their vision. Friends lived out of step with the world. Their yielding to Christ demanded deep listening, joy in suffering for the truth, abandonment to the movement of Love. They declared the end of days and rejected the idolatry of nationalism. They were living into a new Society of Friends.

George Fox wrote about the Kingdom of God breaking into this world – and it came from within – this was the gospel I knew, the gospel I needed. Quakers were holy fools, apocalyptic evangelists, soldiers of prophecy. They were about liberation and creating the age-to-come. That was the Spirit I knew. This was the church I longed for.

Then I found Quakers. They weren’t exactly what I’d read about, and it was kind of confusing. But I decided to stick around for a while. After all, maybe God could use existing Quaker institutions to renew the Society of Friends. I believed and hoped that some of these institutions might lead Friends of all branches into convergence, and then that the Spirit might dissolve our dependence on institutions. I thought that as we yielded to the Spirit, she would return us to that apostolic and anarchic ecclesiology of early Friends.

What I’ve found, instead, is that Friends have converged on a shared history and a handful of practices.

But if the Society of Friends is to ever again carry the anointing of early Quakers, if it is to ever embody the vision of Margaret Fell, going “hand in hand in the unity and fellowship of this eternal Spirit,” it must do more than embrace a convoluted historical connection and some shared practices.

If we are converging on history and practice, we are missing the point. If we are depending on institutions to create a new society or usher in the Kingdom, then we are deceived. These will not bring the radically egalitarian and Spirit-filled communities that God fostered among early Friends. These are forms, and Friends must follow the Spirit.

I’ve met others who need a Spirit-led Society. We share this vision, and we share the disappointment of being drowned out in meeting by classism, ageism, and racism. Some of us wonder if Quakerism isn’t all that different from the rest of liberal religion. From what we’ve seen, it isn’t apocalyptic. It isn’t radical. It doesn’t sound like Fox or look like Jesus. It works at incremental transformation while simultaneously shushing those who need the system overthrown.

I’ve moved on.

But even as I’ve stopped attending meeting – even as institutional Quakerism has, for the most part, become irrelevant to me – I cannot deny that I am a Friend. Quaker conceptions of Christ’s gospel have led me closer to Jesus and it’s integral to what I believe and how I live. At the end of the day, though, if tables aren’t being turned, if people aren’t being healed and set free, if the prophets aren’t marching naked, I’ll have to follow Jesus elsewhere.

I hear early Friend Sarah Blackwell’s words ringing in my heart: “Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless.”

Jesus is still seeking his people, people who see the Spirit of God in the suffering and offer refuge. I’m seeking those people, too.

Jesus, a Failed Revolutionary

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

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Many who followed Jesus hoped for a revolutionary, a leader who might liberate Israel from its imperial oppressor. Christ could have been the answer.

But he died.

And I wonder, if Jesus wanted an insurrection, then why did he die on the cross? Why didn’t he accomplish a revolution?

I’ve been sitting on this question, waiting and thinking. In the meantime, my apocalyptic theology has grown more and more anarchist. I’ve been impatient and angry. But my sense is that this isn’t the way of Christ.

God in Christ reveals what it means to be human. It is love – to live in communion with God and with your fellow children of God. It is to be surrendered to God’s liberating love, embracing the way we are all connected and bound to one another, and following the riskiest and most beautiful implications of this connection, even unto death.

Jesus embodied the truest, fullest way to be human.

And the cross reveals the cost. It reveals that this liberation work, creating a new society marked not by hierarchy but instead by equality and mutual yielding, might cost something. And it is worth it. It must be worth it. People are worth it.

I think the problem is that following God makes us feel like failures. We work and we work and we work, but we do not see the authorities and systems we fight come crashing down. We die fighting for revolution, contending for Heaven to be realized on Earth.

Living into God’s kingdom takes the same commitment that Jesus had, one where laying down your life for your friends is not just the greatest way to show love, it’s also the only way to undo imperial oppressors.

Jesus modeled the life of a true revolutionary, absolutely committed to the way and politics of heaven, even to the point of arrest, torture, and death – even to the point of failure. Living into Christ’s revolution means that failure is both possible and probable. But if resurrection is Christ’s insurrection, then failure might also be the only way to win.

There’s another lesson here: the destruction of the systems and authorities on this earth and the realization of God’s kingdom cannot be accomplished by one person. Christ’s ministry wasn’t a one-man show. It can only be realized through his people, through his body. Through us.

Jesus revealed to us that we need to actively live into another Way. We heal one another. We feed one another. We provide for one another. We work together. We fight for the liberation of all people everywhere. The Lamb’s war is our war.

It could cost us everything. But people are worth it.

Make Quakerism Militant Again

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Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that nonviolence “is an imperative to action.” That’s why King’s Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as a “new and unsettling force.” It was to be disruptive. It was intended to make the issue of poverty impossible to avoid. King was assassinated before seeing that campaign unfold, but his words proved true again and again and again. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, disruptive action created results. Protests – riots even – made people pay attention.

But the work remains unfinished. And being a liberal, progressive Christian just isn’t enough. Especially if you’re comfortable in the tension between Empire and Kingdom. You cannot serve two masters. If you’ve chosen the Kingdom, you must refuse and resist Empire. If you’ve chosen Christ, you must refuse and resist Caesar.

Early Friends knew this. They broke laws. Caused public disruption. They ran toward trouble and defied the “justice” of the unjust. Refused to pay taxes and tithes, criticized Empire, and made enemies. They were fined, beaten, and jailed. And they grew.

I don’t want to romanticize the past, what Friends used to be, but there is a militant strain in the thinking, speaking, and acting of early Friends. Somehow, this bent toward a do-something faith faded.

Quakerism is designed for disruption. Actively stirring up trouble, causing a scene, shedding Light on oppression. Following Christ calls us to be outlaws, to defy the powers of this world. To simultaneously break into and out of the state and extend the Kingdom. We are called to create and live into a new society.

I know many who are hungry for a prophetic movement that undoes the powers of this world, and they aren’t finding this movement in the Church. Some have found prophetic action more possible in non-Christian anarchist and anti-fascist (Antifa) organizing than in their faith communities. Even in more progressive Christians circles, direct action often doesn’t go much farther than picket signs and petitions. This is a shame.

Because it’s not enough. It’s time for prophetic action. It’s time to create the world we want to live in. The Kingdom of God calls not for reform, but for insurrection. If we intend to be a transformative Religious Society, we must take seriously the call to the Kingdom. We must face into the ways in which we are complicit with empire and the powers of this world. We must be willing to lose what little we have in order that the oppressed might be ushered into God’s Kingdom.

Love wins, but love does not always look friendly. As Che Guevara put it, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” And your love for others will lead you to act. We are fighting actual systems, not just ideas.

It’s time to turn over tables.

I believe in the Resurrection

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Somewhere near Bergamo

I never got to know my brother Kento. He was already dying and in a hospital when we first met in person. Just a few days later, he died. He was unable to speak or move, but he was there. I got to touch him. To see him. Finally.

Before that, there had been too much distance. I remember when I first learned of his existence. Then I found him on Facebook, and when he accepted my friend request, it felt like a miracle. I could see pictures of him, read his statuses, see all the people who loved him. I wanted to be able to love him, too.

I only ever knew Kento’s hesitance behind a keyboard. I only ever knew his inability to deal with me.

I hoped he might make peace with us, his birth family, that he might decide to meet us. I told myself to not be anxious, that life would inevitably bring us together. And it did. In a hospital in Italy. In a bed in that hospital. Surrounded by machines.

Then he was gone.

His childhood pastor eulogized Kento’s desire to meet us and know us. Said that he was finally ready. That he wanted to know his brothers and sisters, his nephews. It’s a mythology I want to believe. Even while I know it could be little more than a cleverly revised report of what was actually the case, which breaks my heart. And just for a moment I’m entertaining the idea that this pastor made the whole thing up. To console us. And I know that’s a fucked up idea of consolation. But also, even if it’s true, I could never be mad at Kento. He could have lived a full life, and in that life he might still not have chosen to know us, and I would get that.

But I need to believe.

Or maybe I have to believe. Because I can’t live with the possibility that Kento didn’t want to know me, and I feel pathetic and stupid for how much I’ve longed to know him, and maybe I simply can’t face the fact that I never got to. I’m mourning Kento, the brother I never had.

But I feel him. I hate to spiritualize these sorts of things where complete devastation feels like the only way to honor the tragedy of a person dying. But I feel Kento in my mind, his essence – a burst of warmth, a glimpse of hope.

Here’s what I know: Kento was an anarchist.

We both grew up in the Unification Church, a fringe cult that created our complex family dynamic, but we were different. We were both second generation Moonies. Workshops were the rhythm of our lives.

That was where our lives made sense. Except Kento was considered a bad kid.

Flirting was deemed a serious offense. Our whole theology was built upon properly performing while simultaneously resisting sex. Avoidance of the opposite sex was not just seen as noble, it was required.

Kento didn’t care. He talked to girls, he kissed girls, and worst of all, according to workshop leaders, was how Kento could be such a good friend, even to girls, while being so obviously a bad kid.

He was designated a bad kid even before they had some religious reason to call him a bad kid. Because he saw through our religious leaders, and he knew they had no real authority.

I like to think his anti-authoritarianism was rooted in him being a good friend. The best kind of friend.

The present, goofy, do whatever it takes to make you feel good, alive kind of friend.

I met his friends. They talked about how different he was, both separate and warm, tender. They talked a lot about his tenderness, about his heart for people and for life. He was fearless. He was so alive.

That’s how I want to live. In this world, but not of it. Refusing and resisting illegitimate, oppressive authority. Defined by love. Full of joy in the midst of chaos.

I say all this, but I never really knew Kento. He was barely alive when we got there. There were moments where he seemed to be getting better, and we hoped for a miracle. Toward the end, especially, he was fighting so hard, trying to hold onto life. His heartbeat was fast, his body was swollen. He was sweating and unable to keep his eyes still. Then, just hours later, he was gone.

I was with him at his weakest. But I felt his power bursting through in those last moments. I felt him fighting.

I’m not going to act like Kento was perfect. I know his life wasn’t easy. I also know, so thoroughly, that there was something profoundly and exceptionally good about Kento. I want that. I think of him often, I sense his closeness, maybe even his aid, as I try to live a holy life.

I don’t know exactly how the afterlife works. But my brother lived into a peculiar pattern shaped by an open heart, and I believe he continues. As a result, I find myself believing in the resurrection in a way I never have before. And I think this is why. In resurrection, Kento finally gets his way. Full emancipation.

Freedom. Even from death.

The Kingdom is Waiting

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Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter

I remember falling in love with Jesus my junior year of high school. God received me, embraced me, didn’t ask questions. God loved me.

And then I started getting to know Christians.

I went to an end-times Bible study most Saturday mornings my senior year of high school. We listened to recordings of teachings from Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer – Kansas City, a charismatic ministry with a mission of praying and worshiping 24/7.

It was a small Bible study. Usually there were just three or four of us. We ate bagels, sat in fold-out chairs in a circle, often huddled around a space heater. We listened to Bickle describe the dreadful days that were coming, and every so often one of us would exclaim “Wow!” or “Amen!”

But there was this one moment. I looked around the room. Nobody had their eyes open. They were concentrating on Bickle, trying to soak up every word. It dawned on me that they really believed the end times were approaching, that the day was near. I didn’t know if I believed that.

I felt bad.

Bickle talked about riots, literal battles between the righteous and unrighteous. It didn’t remind me of Jesus.

That’s how it’s been for me. I want to be orthodox, to be right, to fit in. More than anything, I want to be in a community of people who know the God I know, who know what it is to be loved with abandon. But this weird thing happens where for some reason I have to choose between Christ and community. And every time I’ve conformed myself to the expectations of a faith community, I’ve had to resist the love I first met in Jesus.

I think that’s toxic. I think it’s abuse. It took me a long time to see that.

Much of what we know as Evangelicalism doesn’t look or sound like Jesus.

But there’s another side to the story. Sitting in that circle, realizing that maybe I didn’t belong, I noticed a change in the words we were hearing. Bickle began talking about the Church being used to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth by embodying the Sermon on the Mount, by trusting Jesus.

And I knew.

That’s why I’m here. That’s a message I can believe in. But what is it exactly? Bickle’s eschatological narrative calls for us to convert people, pointing to a kingdom that is somewhere else and for another time.

But in Jesus, that kingdom is already here, among us, waiting for us to notice. Waiting for us with love.